The Strip Back: What Cancer Gave Me After Burnout

If I was scripting my life’s story, the last three years would be heavily edited or removed entirely. I don’t want the last three years to be an inch within my near-perfect before-cancer story. I want the best, and I want options too. Options. That seems to be the very thing that’s eluded me since receiving my cancer diagnosis. I’m extremely fortunate in that the type of cancer I had was treatable. I’m telling you this saga on the other side of that hope. I’m beyond thankful for that. But my options were removed. 

Let me take a step back. My pre-cancer story starts to unfurl itself over many Zoom calls. I was in startup heaven…until it started to become something very different. I was anxious. Overworked. And had a foreboding sense that I was nowhere near good enough.’ My new status on LinkedIn of being a start-up coowner never matched my day-to-day reality. I was sinking into what felt like quicksand. This was burnout. 

I was utterly exhausted and devastated that I couldn’t make the grade. I was caught in a desperate mixture of people-pleasing, broken communication, and poor work/life boundaries that created the perfect storm for burnout to ruin my life. I was having low-level panic attacks in burrito shops, not a good look for me. The most obvious option was to simply exit the company. That was painful to admit. It marked the beginning of saying goodbye to things that I considered high-priority for my life’s goals. 

I left the app startup I’d loved. I said goodbye to a cool job and the income it was going to generate. I left my safety net and had to face my burnout and the financial ramifications of it. I lost my confidence and my self-esteem. I felt like I was going underground. 

Just when I felt I’d reclaimed my confidence again, a new set of goodbyes came at me in the form of a cancer diagnosis. After the burnout nightmare, the last thing I expected to have to add to my story reel was a cancer diagnosis. But that’s what happened. 

Out of nowhere, I struggled with severe acid reflux. The symptoms were so odd. Suddenly, the pace at which I ate dramatically changed. Everything slowed down. My preferences changed overnight. I couldn’t eat anything with a lot of spices, only soft foods with a cream color. Mash, ice cream, rice pudding, custard creams, and rice cakes. If it had been grown in a paddy or pulverized, it was more likely to be digestible. I make light of it now, but most of my main food choices disappeared from my menu options. Even now, having won a hard-fought battle to cancer remission, I’m left on a purée (essentially baby food) diet. 

The cancer was in my esophagus, so I had an esophagectomy. Part of my esophagus was removed and my tummy was reshaped to form a tube-like compartment to hold food. This created a whole new digestive tract for me. One new thing: I no longer experience hunger. I used to think so much about where or what my next meal would be, and now it’s not on my mind at all. 

So where does this messy script land? It’s nowhere near boring, I can say that confidently. My story isn’t comfortable and it doesn’t end with a neat hook or “things got fixed” moment. I call this story The Strip Back. It’s been a slow and uncomfortable letting go of many things I had clung to tightly. These things were my comfort and safety next. My identity resided there and I held those things as important. The Strip Back has taken me back to a simpler life. There’s a wide-eyed realization that I don’t need more options to make me happy. What I do need is less stress and workaholism.

I’ve come to a place where quality prevails over quantity. Quality of friendships is so important to me now. I also value quality time spent with said friends, time that isn’t frenetic or caught in frazzled bursts between work commitments. Genuine enjoyment and laughter. Longer walks. Deeper chats. Heartier giggles. I can savor the fuller picture and feel like I’m not building my life on quicksand and rushed career goals. I’m happier in spite of being stripped back into a simpler lifestyle. 

I have more hope these days - in spite of the purée diet and being in recovery from cancer. Why do I have more hope? That’s hard to summarize in writing, and I don’t even know if I can fully make sense of the precious commodity. I do know that this hope has come after a lot of darkness. My burnout was originally my rock bottom - but then cancer forced me to excavate further. Being forced to reach lower than rock bottom builds so much resilience, perspective, and confidence. Not to mention the heap of gratitude. You only really achieve that when you move forwards from the worst vantage point. Everything else becomes something to count as a win. Who knew simplicity had its superpower in hope?


Photo courtesy of author.